Judging by the Crowd, 'Idol' Can't Compete With Itself

From left, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were part of a panel discussion on
From left, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were part of a panel discussion on "American Idol" Thursday at the Museum of Television & Radio. (By Kevin Parry -- Museum Of Television & Radio)
By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, March 3, 2007

HOLLYWOOD Prince won't be back, and Janet Jackson won't be on in the first place -- some of the things we learned attending "American Idol" night at the Museum of Television & Radio's 24th annual William S. Paley TV festival here Thursday.

It was the kickoff event for this year's fest, which runs through March 15. Fittingly, it started with a clip in which Dan Rather, frozen in time in the CBS newsroom and still sporting the dark brown hair color God had given him, explained to "Idol" fans who was this William S. Paley, former CBS bigwig and founder of the museum in Manhattan, which since 1996 has had a branch in L.A.

"Idol" fans also were treated to a clip that the Voice of the Museum said had been specially chosen for the event. It was from "Gidget," and in it our heroine is on her bed weeping buckets about something or another. Enter Daddy, who asks if she's crying and she says no and he says they have to have faith in each other and she throws her arms around him and starts crying buckets all over again. The End. Those of us sitting in Journalists Row during the "Idol" event suspected it had been intended for "Brothers & Sisters" night at the TV fest next week, since "Gidget" star Sally Field is in that show, too.

Then out comes Pat Mitchell, head of the museum for exactly one year that day. She gives a speech, remarkably similar to those she gave when she was head of PBS, about us being here to have a shared media experience, even though we can watch "Idol" at home -- alone, pathetic, and Sanjaya-obsessed -- on our TVs, our iPods, our cellphones, our computers. She also mentioned that TV shows export "American values," which maybe should have been saved for another night at the festival. "Simpsons" night? Nope? Well, how about "Dexter" night? Definitely not. "Prison Break"? "The Office"? "Ugly Betty"?

Actually the real reason we were there is because we are the elite group of "American Idol" fans who know how to program our DVRs. The rest of the L.A. area's 1 million devoted "Idol" fans had to give the TV fest a pass so they could watch the actual show because, yes, the Q&A session was at the same time as the West Coast broadcast of the results show. Which may explain why, though "Idol" is the country's most popular TV show by laps, the small theater in which the festival's sessions take place was only about two-thirds full.

"Who will be the next American Idol? I hope we will get a real lead on that tonight," Mitchell said.

She introduced the panel: show host Ryan Seacrest; judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy "Johnson," which she corrected to Jackson; Fox alternative programming big cheese "Mark" Darnell, which she corrected to Mike; and executive producers Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz, with whose last name Mitchell did strange and wonderful things for several minutes.

All that took about half an hour. Then, without further ado -- except for a 20-minute clip of the best bits from last season's "Idol" finale (Prince) -- the lights went up, we were told Seacrest had given up and gone home, and the Q's and A's began.

The judges, who'd come straight from the "live" (on the East Coast) results show, were in rare form after getting in a short nap during all the preliminary stuff. They amused us with a lot of the cross-talk that has done so much to endear them to viewers nationwide.

Among the things they argued about was which "Idol" winners they spotted right away. Simon said they pegged Fantasia Barrino, Ruben Studdard and Carrie Underwood. Paula and Randy insisted Kelly Clarkson be added. Simon said no. Randy conceded the point but insisted he was the first to spot Fantasia (which is silly, because we were the first to spot Fantasia). Paula said she was the first to spot Elvis. Simon cracked that she was around then. Paula had walked right into that one (though, in fairness, Simon is two years older). Simon noted the other judges also loved last season's winner, Taylor Hicks. "I couldn't stand him," Simon said, noting that he turned out to be right because the second runner-up, Chris Daughtry, is the one who's sold the albums, not Taylor.

"If it becomes a popularity contest, it's like winning 'Big Brother' -- nothing's going to happen," Simon said regarding last season's outcome.

Everyone onstage wanted to make sure we knew "Idol" is so much more than a singing competition because viewers really get to know the contestants and they get to vote people out each week, which the judges said is critical to the show's success. "Otherwise it's just 12 singers and that's boring," Simon said.

"I think it's called 'Grease,' " Darnell cracked, referring to NBC's "Idol"-esque reality series in which viewers vote which guy and girl singer-dancer will get the lead roles in a Broadway revival of "Grease."

The gang recalled how in the show's first season, not so many people auditioned and stars stayed away from the guest-judging idea. Now the show is fighting them off -- both auditioners and professional singers. Exec producer Warwick said Janet Jackson wanted to be on "Idol" this season but they couldn't squeeze her in.

"I don't blame you; I wouldn't have her," Simon said to Warwick, adding that maybe 10 years ago he would have put her on the show.

The Beatles night we'd been promised this season is a bust because Paul McCartney can't make it. "Ringo was available," Simon cracked. Instead, "Idol" is planning a British Invasion night.

(We love a good conspiracy theory and like to think, albeit with no knowledge of the actual facts, that McCartney bowed out because he's is in the middle of a messy divorce from his wife, a.k.a. upcoming "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Heather Mills. As we were reminded by the gang onstage, whenever a singer appears on "Idol," his or her catalogue sales go through the roof. "Except Neil Sedaka," Simon said. "His went backwards.")

Simon also said he did not like the inclusion of Prince on last year's finale because he declined to sing a duet with the finalists, insisting he perform alone. Mary J. Blige, on the other hand, was only too happy to slap down Idolette Elliott Yamin on last year's finale, and that's how Simon says it should be for any singer who wants in on that show's tens of millions of viewers.

And, in closing, we'd like to relate to all you "Idol" fans what Simon said about this year's deplorable crop of male competitors. To wit: Yes, they are bad, but do not be disheartened because they are still so much better than the first season, when the best guy singer was Justin Guarini.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company